Studies of the Scottish Parliament and Constitutional Change: once favoured, now forgotten?

By Paul Cairney

The Scottish Parliament is an important focus for academic study, not least because most of the early work has produced broad brush strokes. There is still an important role for in-depth, case study based, research on particular bills, time periods, and periods of minority/ majority or single-party/ coalition rule. There is much work to be done to compare the Scottish Parliament with others, from the current focus on comparisons with Westminster and, at times, Nordic parliaments, to the well-established broader work on classifying legislatures. In each case, the new Scottish experience has something to add to ‘Westminster family’ discussions, comparisons based on similar size or functions, and studies of non-majority rule. There are also important but small literatures on the role of the Scottish Parliament as a hub for deliberative and participative democracies, and on microcosmic representation and its effect on parliamentary practices.

There is an interesting relationship between studies of the Scottish Parliament and studies of constitutional change. At one point, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they seemed inextricably linked. This was the age of ‘new politics’ in which constitutional change was to be accompanied by political change. The Scottish Parliament was to be at the centre of a new political system which eschewed the ‘old Westminster’ ways:

The coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational (Scottish Constitutional Convention, SCC).

This would be pursued in a number of ways, including: a proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties; ‘power-sharing’ between the executive and legislature; a central role for committees in parliamentary deliberation; closer links between state and civic society through parliamentary initiatives such as a petitions process; and equality in the selection of candidates within a Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women. In each case, constitutional change produced an academic agenda, comparing these high hopes with political reality. The ten-year mark in particular produced a brief surge of attention to the Scottish Parliament, as part of an evaluation of Scottish devolution as a whole.

Yet, now, the Scottish Parliament is not a major focus of academic research and it is mentioned rarely in political and public debates about further constitutional change.  Why?

The first plausible explanation is that we expected, or soon realised, that most of these ‘new politics’ aims were unrealistic. In fact, although the SCC came to symbolise the agenda for new politics, it did not design the Scottish Parliament or the new Scottish political system. That job was performed by the UK Government and the Consultative Steering Group, which designed something much closer to the Westminster tradition.

Most notably, the executive-legislature relationship was very similar, with the former producing policy and the latter performing a traditional scrutiny role. Although the Scottish Parliament had distinctive features, including a ‘front-loaded’ legislative process beginning with committee scrutiny, an inquiry function performed by fused standing/ select committees, the ability to produce its own legislation (via committees and a straightforward members process), and a petitions committee overseeing a straightforward petition submission process, it did not have distinctive levels of resources. It was ‘powerful’ compared to most West European legislatures, but not in relation to its government.

Consequently, it operated in a similar way to Westminster: most policy was produced by the Scottish Government and most of the Scottish Parliament’s time was taken up by, often ineffectual, scrutiny. The party dynamic was similar too: from 1999-2007 Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition majority and dominated committee and plenary votes (with very limited backbench dissent). There was a surge of activity on inquiries and Scottish Parliament legislation in the first few ‘honeymoon’ years, but it tailed off quickly. There was also a surge of attention to minority SNP Government (2007-11), but this experience reinforced the gulf of resources between Scottish Government and Parliament. We can identify a small handful of bills that the SNP could not pass in this period (including a referendum of Scottish independence bill), but not an overall shift in power or responsibility.

The same can be said for the wider role of the Scottish Parliament: the petitions process has not set the heather on fire, and the deliberative role of the Scottish Parliament is important, but no great improvement on Westminster. The major outcome, which we can point to with relative pride, is the relatively high representation of women (albeit from a low Westminster base – 18% in 2001). However, the initial promising signs – 37% in 1999, peaking at 40% in 2003 – have given way to a drop in representation to one-third (33% in 2007, 35% in 2011; Westminster is now 22%), with no prospect of a rise any time soon.  Consequently, overall, perhaps attention is low because there is little new to say.

The second explanation is that there is far less of a focus on wider political reform this time around. There is some internal parliamentary attention to incremental reforms, occasional and very brief attention to things like the size of a future parliament, and some attention to wider political reform, with implications for the Scottish Parliament. Yet, there is also a sense either that the Scottish Parliament is working well enough to resist major reform, or that a major debate on the Scottish Parliament’s future can wait until the referendum vote. There is some reflection on these issues among academics and permanent parliamentary staff, but not the political parties engaged in the constitutional battle of ideas.

As things stand, the academic study of the Scottish Parliament is done largely by a very small group of enthusiasts drawn largely from law and political science. The main way in which they get together is at the annual Study of the Scottish Parliament seminar, which takes place at Holyrood and is currently coordinated by Jim Johnston (Clerk Team Leader). If you would like more details of its events, and to add weight to its activities, please feel free to email Jim at James.Johnston@scottish.parliament.uk or me at p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk

Cairney mugshot 3.7.13About the author

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics at the University of Stirling

Image: Andy Hay CC BY

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